Back in the Saddle, sort of

It has been almost six months since I last wrote anything for pleasure. I am aware that that sounds like a confessional (“forgive me reader, for I have sinned…”), but the reality is that most things I love to do have been put on the back burner for personal and, in part, professional reasons. At present, writing copy and research reports for Fox & Squirrel and our clients is more important to me than writing musings on food and life and culture and my daughter; juggling a multi-pronged career amidst a husband studying an MBA at Cambridge and a rather bonkers two year-old means free time is a bit of a foreign word in my house.

But in an almost serendipitous turn of fortune, a bit of information I need to start yet another facet of this circus of a freelance working life hasn’t arrived, and while I came to Tate Britain with the hope of working in their sort of exclusive-but-not-that-exclusive members area, I have discovered their internet connection is something similar to dialup, so really, why fight it? All of a sudden, for the first time in almost six months, I have some actual free time.

Today is one of those uniquely British summertime days, when the rain is warm but torrential, and August already feels like September, with dead leaves sticking to the pavements, full of resignation that yet again, the summer is, and almost always will be, a disappointment. I have written before about the weather, but after 13 years of living through it, my main belief now is that it is the meteorological equivalent to a bad boyfriend. When it is lovely here, it is the best city in the world. The trees flicker soft light on the street, the Thames sparkles despite its silt and ancient pollution, and the city never looks more beautiful; I am deeply in love with London on these days. But when it’s bad, it’s so, so bad. It doesn’t care. It’s dismissive of your plans, your feelings; it doesn’t care that it’s July, it feels like being 15 degrees and windy. It won’t return your calls, and you’re sure it’s cheating on you… or something…

So on days like today, the British put on a brave face along with their Macs and reassure themselves that there will be an Indian summer and this is all worth it. Stiff upper lip, etc. But we probably won’t, and then we’ll slowly descend into self-pity as the days get shorter and eventually so dark than we won’t even remember what summer is like in the first place… Anyway, what was my point? Oh yes, I have some free time and I need to use said time indoors because basically it’s ridiculous outside; I might as well bloody write.

I broke my phone last week. I dropped it in a (unused) loo and basically it is completely out of commission. The screen wigged out in a way that resembled an iPhone possessed by Lucifer himself, and despite resting in rice for several days, the phone is so very dead. Initially, I took a rather philosophical view about it. How nice to not be easily contactable these days, I thought. But it’s now been a week and not having a phone is driving me crazy. It’s not because I need something to do with my hands, or zone out on Facebook, but because so much of my work is done on my phone. Bar the two days I’m in my office, the rest of my working life, which happens to be roughly full-time at present, is balanced between nap times, bed times, Sesame Street aka the Babysitter, and everything in between. Not being connected is bad for business.

Or maybe it isn’t.

A couple weeks ago, Lauren Laverne wrote a really great piece on the idea that perhaps the idea of a “work/life balance” is actually bullshit. It doesn’t really exist, and perhaps just being “good enough” is more realistic. She says embrace the crazy, and do it with the support of others. This is difficult for me. I’m not great for asking for help and really, I don’t want to be just good enough; I want to be amazing at everything (I never said I was realistic…) which is why having no connection to work when I’m not in front of my computer is stressing me out. I intrinsically feel the need to reply to emails quickly to show that I’m not just sitting around, as if I need to justify being at home with my daughter. Like I said, bullshit.

What I’ve mostly discovered is that nothing bad has happened if I haven’t replied to an email within 15 minutes. I can leave my house for two hours and not come back to a barrage of emails demanding replies. My inner cynic thinks this is because it’s August and London has been emptied of its residents, but I think the truth is more likely that no one passes judgement on me quite like I do. No one is as harsh on me like I am. I really could probably do with giving myself a break on this one in the future.

But I still want my phone back, if purely for CityMapper.

I feel like this summer has been the summer of croutons. I have discovered that making them ticks more than a few boxes: it encourages me to buy real bread, not some of this half-assed E-numbered so-called sliced bread from the supermarket; making croutons combats food waste, because real bread goes stale instead of mouldy, and such staleness creates crouton greatness; it makes me eat more soup, which is healthy and a good way to keep my energy up (according to my acupuncturist). All in all, it has been a happy discovery using up stale bread in this manner.

It can be a messy process, especially if, as was in my case, you’ve got more than a couple loaves to use up. I was picking up flakes of crumb off the floor for about a week after the last round. Essentially, croutons are stale bread, baked in olive oil (or butter, if you’re feeling sexy) and tossed with salt and pepper. It makes a perfect foundation for lots of earthy herbs like rosemary, thyme, parsley or oregano. I personally prefer to keep it simple and use only salt and pepper and garlic powder.

For a standard loaf of sourdough bread, I’d use about 100ml/3.5oz of olive oil, give or take, a generous amount of salt (a half of a tablespoon should be plenty) and black pepper to taste, and about a teaspoon of garlic powder – use your judgement. Cut the bread up into little 2cm/1inch chunks, crusts and all, and then toss everything together. Make sure there’s oil on every bit of bread, and add more if need be. Bake in about 180C/350F for about 15 minutes, then turn over, and bake for another 10 or so, until they become nice and golden. They’re lovely to munch on straight from the oven, but obviously go with salads and aforementioned soups.

It appears to have brighten up outside so I think I’ll risk my exit from Tate Britain and head home. If you have a chance, please take the time to visit the Barbara Hepworth exhibition here. Her sculptures are so incredibly beautiful – sumptuous in their curves, but calm, gentle, and contemplative.

Here’s to hoping that another six months don’t go by without more writing, but if they do, please note dear reader, if you exist, that it isn’t for lack of motivation, but rather I’m either too involved in other things or, as is the most likely scenario, I’ve got my face stuck in a bowl of croutons.

Much love x

Pear and Chocolate Bread

I have been trying to eat more fruit whilst pregnant. It’s clearly very good for me, and obviously for the wee one as well. Yet I have always had a rather fraught relationship with fruit. Of course, the tastes and varieties are miraculous, I’m not going to deny that, but it seems to me that you have to be so committed to the action of ripening and eating them that I often avoid doing so. I am forever reminded of Eddie Izzard’s brilliant bit of standup on fruit in Definite Article, which sums it up nicely for me.

imagesI think my problem is efficiency. An apple monopolises your hand. After the first bite and the juice starts, it becomes so sticky the hand cannot do anything else. You must eat the apple quickly so you can go back to whatever you were doing. Slicing them is an option, but the risk of oxidation is greater. Pears will never ripen when you need them and render multi-tasking impossible as well. Oranges or similar make your hands smell so unpleasant. It gives me flashbacks to my school lunch boxes when eau-de-pre-sliced-orange permeated every single other item in the box, rendering everything else, according to my 10-year-old self, inedible. I will never forget the taste of crackers with orange smell as long as I live. Ugh. Bananas are fine I guess, but I’m suspicious of their texture – almost too hard or too soft, rarely exactly right and usually complete with a few off-putting blemishes. Bear in mind, I know I’m vastly simplifying what is available to us, but you get my point, so regardless I persevere on grudgingly. Mind over matter etc.

pear-fruitBritish pears and apples are in season right now, so I was hopeful that if I had some to keep at home in the fruit bowl, seeing them everyday would inspire me to eat them. Not so. I was a little over-enthusiastic about exactly how many pears I’d eat out of a bag of six (one) but I did better with the apples and only left a couple behind. Pears are tricky. As Eddie says, they are hard as rocks for seemingly forever, ripen for about a day, then turn to mush. Nightmare. I refuse to have such a co-dependant relationship with a fruit. But I also hate waste. A weekend away beckoned, so I needed to do something with them in order to avoid throwing them away. The now slightly pathetic apples needed using too.

A tart was out of the question. Too obvious. I thought a derivation of banana bread could work, and found a recipe online for pear and chocolate tea bread which I thought I could play with a bit. I was also pleasantly pleased to see that the recipe needed applesauce too, so I’d be able to use the apples up as well.

2013-02-15 15.01.25There are, however, some things to note. The recipe seems to have been adapted from another cookbook, and features measurements in both imperial and metric, yet not all the metric measurements accurately convert to the imperial ones given. I think it is best to stick to only metric in this particular case. Also, as there is only 100g of butter, which isn’t too bad as tea breads go fat-wise, it is worth noting that after you cream it with the sugar and start adding eggs, the butter begins to panic a bit and looks like it’s about to separate. Don’t stress because once you add the flour it’ll come back together again, but you could probably get away with using just a single egg, in my opinion, as the butter seemed to be fine with the first, but seemed rather annoyed by the second. Or perhaps add another 15g or so of butter, which could also work, your choice. I also added some cinnamon and nutmeg to the batter and went easy on the chocolate. Pear and chocolate are amazing together, but chocolate can overpower a bit so it’s best to use restraint; I used a small bag of plain chocolate chips. For decoration, a thinly-sliced pear was fanned out on the top and sprinkled with demerara sugar.

The result was a slightly carmelised topping, and a moist inside which was exactly sweet enough. It had lovely subtle pear flavours, with a hit of warming spice, essential as it’s February and flipping cold, and a nice rounded smoothness from the chocolate. Clearly not as healthy as eating the fruit in its virgin form, but nothing got wasted, which surely is as successful a result the overly ripe pears could have asked for. And anyway, eating them this way is much easier: multi-tasking with a pear is finally possible, although with one slice of the bread and cuppa, you probably won’t feel like it.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

2013-02-12 18.43.30Before Betty Crocker became synonymous with Devil’s Food Cake mix and General Mills, its cookbook, first published in 1950, was one of my mother’s and grandmother’s default cookery reference guides. At the time, my mother’s dog-eared edition, pages loose and some undoubtedly lost forever, held for me the mysteries of cooking in its bounty of recipes, but today I mostly remember it as a baking bible. I managed to track down a updated edition about 6 years ago and was thrilled to find the old favourites were there, plus many more which I will never begin to crack the surface of. Naturally, as it is an American cookbook, all the recipes are in frustrating imperial measurements, but it has been redesigned as a binder which makes it easy to remove pages, convert the measurements yourself and continue on your merry way.

The book had a seemingly fool-proof recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies (that has since been usurped by David Liebovitz), as well as other American classics like Buttermilk Biscuits, where the dough makes an effervescent whisper of protest as a dough cutter weighs down upon it, Lemon Bars that remind me of my grandmother and Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting, which seems to hold a certain cakey romance in my mind, although I am sure I could count on one hand how many times we made it. But Peanut Butter Cookies still, after all this time, stand out to me as supremely easy and entirely memorable even with such minor effort.

Marvellous thing, this book was and still is.

In honour of the Brixton Blog’s first birthday party, I was asked to prepare some little treats and figured it was as good a time as ever to give the delightful Peanut Butter Cookies another crack. Not only are they are slightly crumbly, there is a nice little give in the dough so they stay nice and chewy. And with only about 225g (1 cup) of sugar, the sweetness is nicely tempered by the salty peanut butter, making them rather addictive and not at all sickly. A recipe as straightforward as this can be built on quite easily and I have often toyed with the idea of adding orange zest or some spice. But this time, I went for plain chocolate chips as really, chocolate and peanut butter are one of the most glorious couplings of all time.

2013-02-06 13.55.03

One trick the original recipe doesn’t allow for is chilling time in fridge. I have made these before and often when it comes to pressing them into their little flat crisscrossed shapes, the dough sticks to the fork and ends up making them a bit mushed and sticky. After preparing the dough, it is advisable to give the fats and flours a chance to get to know each other and have a rest before moulding them into shape. I chilled the dough for about 3 hours, but that was purely due to circumstance. I imagine half an hour to an hour would do the trick nicely.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

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  • 115g or 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 115g or 1/2 cup brown sugar – if using cups be sure the sugar is packed
  • 115g or 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 55g or 1/4 cup suet (shortening)
  • 55g or 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 large egg
  • 140g plain flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 100g or 1/3 cup of plain (semi-sweet) chocolate chips

In a glass bowl, beat both sugars, peanut butter, suet or shortening, butter and egg together with an electric mixer. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Once all the ingredients are mixed thoroughly, add the chocolate chips and mix well with a wooden spoon. The dough may seem a little stiff and the chips tricky to amalgamate, but stick at it, they’ll get there eventually. Your goal is to have them evenly dispersed throughout the dough.

Chill in refrigerator for at least 1/2hr. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F and line baking tray with baking paper.

2013-02-06 17.37.06Shape dough into approx 3cm (1 1/4in) balls. Using a fork, flatten the dough, leaving crisscross marks along the top.

Once baked, these marks will add to the nice crumbly character of the cookie.

Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, depending on the speed and intensity of your oven, until light brown.

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Remove cookies from baking sheet and transfer to a cooling rack. Let them chill out there for a few minutes. You can see in the photo on the left that I left one batch in for a little longer than 10 minutes so they were a little more toasted. Don’t worry if that happens; they won’t dry out and they still taste delightful.

Makes about 24. Perfect with a cup of tea or a glass of cold milk.

Recipe adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Bonus Edition, pg 180.

My History with Brisket

BeefCutBrisketI’m becoming reacquainted with inexpensive cuts of meat. Oxtail, which I made a few weeks ago for the first time, is delicious and rich, and was a dish my mother used to make during the colder months. Last week’s chill factor called for something similar: the days demanded comfort food and red wine. I had a large piece of rolled brisket that needed to be used up and I had been mulling over what to do with it. I’ve seen it made with ketchup, or served in a broth, and perhaps could have tried my hand at salt beef, but all of these seemed not quite right for the weather and really, not quite British enough.

10_-_Beef-Brisket--Rolled-Brisket

I first tried brisket when I was 17. I had heard of the cut, of course, but I considered it quite different and almost exotic in my ignorance. It was a dish with romantic connotations associated with New York and the cultural stereotypes more widely associated with the Jewish culture. Growing up in Oregon, where the Jewish population is of the minority (approximately 1%), I thought if I ever did try it, a severe woman with greying hair and an overarching desire to feed me would be the first to do so, should I ever make it as far as that glittering City in the East. As it turned out, it would be a kindly greying woman in a city thirty minutes north of my hometown who would be first to make the introduction.

In school, I was a member of Youth and Government, a sort of a mock political club in which high schoolers met to “debate” issues. Every year, teenagers from all across Oregon would descend on our state capital in Salem, for four days to play grown-up politicians, complete with mock-lobbyists, mock-representatives and mock-senators. It was great, wholesome fun and I’m quite sure in reality it wasn’t too far off from what the real politicians were up to. Local Salem residents would offer to house students from out of town and my friend, Heidi, and I were set up with an elderly Jewish couple who lived not too far away from the centre of town. I wish I could remember their names. They reminded me of our Jewish family friends from California, Max and Goldie Chirlin, whom I adored and were the first to acquaint me as a child to the glories of bagels, lox and cream cheese. To my 17-year-old self, this new couple seemed so familiar to the Chirlin’s, yet so very different. I was nervous to stay with them; an unfounded notion as there was nothing to set them apart from any other elderly couple. Perhaps it was the glaring difference of youth set against age that caused such apprehension.

We arrived to their house quite late in the evening. They showed us to our room, a small spare bedroom with two single beds. Their house was filled with knick-knacks, 70s furniture, and many family photos of children and grandchildren. The eager wife asked us if we were hungry, which of course we were. She smiled at our response and went to prepare something. I was terrified. As a teenager, I loved food, but anything out of the ordinary I feared. I had hoped she’d make us something safe like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, but it was not to be. Set before us was a sinuous and tender hunk of beef, with a flavourful sauce, which to this day I am sure was comprised of a derivation of ketchup and stock, and served with a bit of mashed potato. I didn’t even know that it was brisket. It wasn’t until she told us what it was that I realised that the brisket in my mind was nothing compared to the real thing. As a 17-year-old meat and potato obsessive, I had hit the motherload. It was rich, sweet and salty and utterly beefy. The rest of the week debating issues passed unremarkably, but that first taste has stayed with me for 15 years.

From that point onwards, I reconsidered my relationship with brisket (if one can say one has a relationship with a particular cut of meat). From then on I knew what I was dealing with and this delightful woman had set the bar. As I grew older and delved further into a borderline obsession with food, I discovered there was more to brisket than its association with Jewish culture. Koreans boil it, compress it, then serve it thinly sliced. It is used in Vietnamese pho and in Thailand, the dish Suea Rong Hai (Crying Tiger) looks spectacularly good, with bits of grilled meat served with an atomic chilli sauce for dipping (although this recipe suggests using a rib eye or similar). All these adoptions are quite distinct from the slow-cooked version, soused in ketchup.  I suppose many of the Asian climates do not require such Westernised notions of comfort food.

In the end, I simply unrolled and braised the kilo of brisket for two and a half hours in beef stock and lots of red wine, with carrots, celery, onions, garlic and some herbs. The final result was tender and moreish, the beef and vegetables cushioned in a sticky reduction. Served with toasts with melted Comté, it certainly hit the spot. A far cry from the terrified tomato-soup craving 17-year-old, brisket now holds for me associations of comfort and warmth. The weather this week seems to be toying with warming up but I am sure the cold is not far from returning. In the mean time, what are your winter comfort foods? Do you have a traditional recipe for brisket?

Chorizo and Spring Onion Potato Salad

I didn’t want to write a proper article on food today, I’m at work and on a lunch break, but I feel that I should let everyone know about the incredible discovery made this weekend in the realm of potato salad. I know, bear with me, I can tell you’re ridiculously excited. 

See, the boyf and I had a lovely visit to the Brixton Farmers Market yesterday; its very exciting at this time of year (despite it being stupid cold for April). New things are coming into season, and the wintery root vegetables are slowly losing out to radishes, celery, fresh herbs etc. Its still a bit early for the really fun stuff of May-July, but its getting better every week. 

Including the other veg that we bought, some spring onions, watercress and knobbly potatoes made it into our shopping bag, and an idea for this potato salad began to take shape. We bought chorizo.

Why potato salad? Well, we were attempting to have a picnic with some friends, yes, even in 10C/50F weather, because it was semi-warm when the sun did make an appearance and its what the British do, damn it. Keep Calm and Carry On, despite the weather.

Anyway, the salad was a winner, even eaten with gloves on, and here’s how to make it.

Boil a punnet of potatoes and let them cool, add three spring onions, chopped, leave the woody bits of the watercress out but add a half handful of plucked leaves, add some nice salt and pepper, and about two handfuls chopped up chorizo. Add a big dollop of crème fraîche. Stir. Enjoy copiously.

x